Previous research carried out by the team has identified the presence of stem cells in bowel that is removed from babies with Hirschprung’s disease. The presence of these vital stem cells indicates that, if properly stimulated, new nerves could be generated meaning the condition could effectively be cured.

A stem cell is a “master cell” which has the ability to develop into any of the body’s 200 cell types.

The research team

The new student will be supervised by Dr Bettina Wilm at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Translational Medicine. This is an exciting collaboration with Consultant Paediatric Surgeon, Mr Simon Kenny, at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital.

Why might cell therapies be possible?

When a baby is born with Hirschprung’s disease, their bowel doesn’t work because the required nerve cells (ganglion cells) haven’t formed properly whilst the baby is in the womb. The lack of nerves means that the bowel can’t relax properly which means the babies are often unable to poo and become severely constipated.

Once diagnosed, the babies have to be operated on in order to remove the bowel that isn’t functioning and these babies will have a temporary stoma, which in a number of cases becomes permanent.

A stoma is an opening in the abdomen through which waste passes into either a colostomy or ileostomy bag.

Why is it important to do this research into cell therapies for Hirschprung’s disease?

Because stem cells have the ability to generate into any type of cell, their discovery in the removed pieces of bowel from babies with Hirschprung’s is very significant. It presents a real opportunity to use them to generate the nerve cells that are missing and that cause the disease.

Each year, approximately 170 babies in the UK are born with Hirschsprung’s disease which is a potentially life-threatening condition. Currently the only option for these children is surgery. After surgery around 30% of children will still experience constipation or incontinence and 10% will need a permanent stoma.

A proportion of children struggle with the emotional toll that their bowel problems have. Developing a treatment that has the potential in future to avoid surgery for these very young babies has the potential to transform the lives of these children.